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21 Jun 2006 : Column 1440

Angela Eagle: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, which is very much to the point. She is right that any loopholes that exist because of the international nature of the internet and its rapid expansion need to be investigated carefully by the Government. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister agrees.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Internet Watch Foundation deals with child abuse, obscenity and racial hatred, but it does not seem to deal with other kinds of hatred, including inciting hatred for reasons of political beliefs, gender or sexuality? That is a loophole in protection in our domestic law, which the Government should move to close.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Public Order Act 1986 applies to online material in the same way as it would to written material, notwithstanding any disclaimer on the website? Does he agree that the public order statute should offer protection from deliberately compiled lists of so-called targets, against whom incitement to violence is discussed in extremist chatrooms? If so, why has no action been taken to date to deal with Redwatch? If the Public Order Act is not appropriate to catch this sinister activity, will my hon. Friend undertake to review the protections that currently exist in domestic law to see how the gaps can be closed?

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the fact that the hate website is hosted abroad does not shield it from prosecution if it incites violence, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark) just pointed out to the House? Will he explain what action has been taken by the police and prosecuting authorities to deal with the threat that such hate content presents to law-abiding UK citizens? I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has been at the forefront of the fight against images of child abuse appearing on websites and that he has been effective in working with internet service providers to close down UK-hosted sites and to filter criminal paedophile content from abroad. Will he now consider extending that sensible and effective approach to other extremist hate sites such as Redwatch? I note in the news today that an internet site that distributed links to illegal free music-swapping sites has been closed down by the Dutch authorities, because it encourages and facilitates lawbreaking. The time is right to end the scourge of hate sites in this country, which do the same thing for violent political ends.

There will be those who argue that the existence of hate sites such as Redwatch is an expression of our freedom of speech that should be tolerated even if we disagree with it, but that argument is profoundly mistaken. When this House passed the Public Order Act 1936, Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts were terrorising the east end of London and Hitler’s brownshirts had brought him to power in Germany, and tolerance did not feature noticeably on their agenda. In that time of great peril, this House realised that there are limits to freedom of expression and that those limits lie in ensuring that ideologies of hate and violence are not given free reign. Such ideologies must be curbed in the interests of all and for the public good. That remains as true today as it was in the dark days that led to the second world war and the death of millions of innocent victims. Hate websites do not deserve the protection of the principle of freedom of speech when they seek to prevent others from exercising their democratic rights.

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My constituent was subjected to a vile attack in his own home for daring to be active in the battle against the far-right fascist threat in the north-west. His details continue to be posted on the Redwatch website alongside those of many other ordinary people who care enough to defend our democratic values. It is not tolerable that a practical instrument for criminal activity, violent assault and political intimidation should be allowed to remain undisturbed and easily available. I look forward to my hon. Friend the Minister’s reply, which I hope will outline what he intends to do to deal with that sinister threat.

7.37 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) on securing the debate and on her excellent speech. The importance of the debate is apparent, because many of my hon. Friends have chosen to attend. Informed and constructive discussion is key to tackling the menace of extremism, and today’s debate presents an excellent opportunity to examine the issues around extremist websites that incite hatred. I will try to answer my hon. Friend’s points as I make my speech.

The Government deplore extremism of that kind, and strongly condemn websites such as Redwatch. I am sure that we all agree that although freedom of expression and open debate are cornerstones of British democracy, there is no place within the wide spectrum of British politics for organisations that encourage violence or intimidation against those whose views they disagree with. I was particularly sorry to hear about the cowardly attack last month on my hon. Friend’s constituent, Alec McFadden. My sympathies are with him and his family, and I wish him a speedy recovery from his injuries.

It may be helpful if I set this issue in the wider context of the Government’s work on hate crime. Hatred, violence and incitement to violence are deplorable in any circumstances, but when that hatred is founded on some belief, difference or characteristic of the victim, as is the case with the Redwatch website and as it is with racists and homophobes, it is particularly deplorable.

A Home Office working group is currently considering how to deliver a number of objectives in connection with the issue. The first objective is increasing the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system and improving the way in which the criminal justice system responds to hate crime. The second objective is increasing the reporting of hate crime. The third objective is improving the proportion of hate crimes that are brought to justice. The fourth objective is improving the local response to hate crime, particularly in areas with high rates of hate crime. The fifth objective is increasing our knowledge base on hate crime.

This work is currently focusing on crime motivated by race, faith and homophobic hatred, but the parallels with the topic that we are debating today are clear. A successful outcome, as measured against those objectives, will be a blow to the far right. Indeed, it could in some ways be regarded as indicative of positive changes in society that Redwatch feels so threatened by the anti-racism activists whom it targets that it feels the need to take such drastic action against them.

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Redwatch is a far-right website with roots in the Combat 18 organisation. It publishes personal details such as names, addresses and pictures of people whom it believes to be anti-racist activists or demonstrators.

Martin Salter: Does my hon. Friend recognise that there is a very real possibility that within the next 48 hours every Member who has taken part in this debate will find their photographs and details posted on the Redwatch site, as that is how these people operate?

Mr. Coaker: I do realise that, but as my hon. Friend has demonstrated in his constituency and in his political work, we will not be cowed as regards the views that we hold. Indeed, the freedom of expression that we have here is one of the hallmarks of our democracy.

Many of the pictures that appear on the Redwatch website are taken at anti-racist rallies. Although there is no direct incitement to commit any criminal offence against the people publicised on the website, the language used to describe them is highly offensive and insulting, and the possible consequences very grave. The degree of intimidation that the website’s targets feel as a result of being pictured or having their personal information published must be considerable. There must be a genuine fear of attack from supporters of the far right, spurred on by comments on the website.

I can confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey that an arrest has been made for suspected public order offences relating to the Redwatch website, and a man is currently on bail pending further enquiries. Obviously, that is an operational matter for the police, and Members will understand that I am unable to comment further on that particular case.

There is a framework of laws that may be used to tackle websites that incite hatred or publish threatening or abusive material. It is an offence to incite others to commit an offence such as assault or criminal damage. Under the Public Order Act 1986, it is also an offence to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or to distribute threatening or abusive material with the intention of causing another person to believe that immediate unlawful violence will be used against them. Under the Protection From Harassment Act 1997, it is an offence for any person to behave in a way that they know, or ought to know, amounts to harassment or causes someone to fear violence. Under the same Act, victims of harassment may apply to the High Court for a civil restraining order. Such an order has in the past successfully been obtained by victims of animal rights extremists. It can include a requirement for the removal of information about individuals from websites.

Angela Eagle: I have a report of the arrest of somebody involved in the Redwatch website, which happened on 1 May last year. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the arrest that he mentioned is not that one, and that this man has not been on bail for a year?

Mr. Coaker: I cannot confirm whether that is the case, but I will clarify that and write to my hon. Friend with the information.

It can also be an offence under the Data Protection Act 1998 for a website to publish a person’s name and address if that information is not in the public domain.
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I want to respond to an important point that my hon. Friend raised. Anything that is illegal off line is also illegal online. Therefore, if a UK-based website publishes material that is not only offensive but illegal under the above framework, action can be taken against the person who owns the website, exactly as with somebody who might have published a leaflet or a poster. However, operators of some websites have been careful to try to avoid overstepping the conduct that the legislation has defined as criminal.

The difficulty occurs when the website is hosted outside UK jurisdiction, as in the case of Redwatch, which is hosted in the United States. In those circumstances, we do not have the power to close down that website, or, in some cases, to prosecute the people responsible for it if illegal material was not distributed in or uploaded from the UK. However, the offence of inciting others to commit crimes would not be exempt from prosecution in those circumstances, regardless of whether the perpetrator had used a website hosted in a foreign jurisdiction. That is a genuine challenge, which calls for greater international co-operation and collaboration. We seek to do that whenever we have the opportunity, and we have initiated inquiries with the US Department of Justice to establish whether hosting such a website constitutes a breach of US law, regulations or industry good practice.

For UK-based websites, there is positive co-operation between internet service providers in this country and law enforcement agencies. Examples of that are the “acceptable use” policies, which most service providers put in place. They vary between companies, but will generally enable service providers to remove material from their site not only if it is illegal but in other circumstances. They may include complaints from people whose details have been published without their consent.

I can inform my hon. Friend and other hon. Members who are present that I shall raise all those issues with the internet service providers the next time I meet them.

Angela Eagle: I thank my hon. Friend for his positive response. Will he ask whether the internet service providers can extend the protections that they apply to the use of abusive photographs of children to the sort of content that we are considering? If so, they could filter out and close down the websites that can be accessed from the UK if they contain such criminal content. That would be a great step forward. Will he meet a delegation from the TUC and others to discuss the prospect of making progress on this matter?

Mr. Coaker: As I said, I will raise all the issues that have been mentioned in the debate with the internet service providers the next time I meet them. I shall be happy to meet my hon. Friend, and a delegation, as soon as we can match diaries.

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I can also answer my hon. Friend’s question about the Internet Watch Foundation. It has a remit to minimise the availability of potentially illegal internet content pertaining to images of child abuse hosted anywhere in the world, criminally obscene content hosted in the UK, and incitement to racial hatred content hosted in the UK.

It is for the police to investigate complaints and decide whether there is evidence that website operators have committed offences—for example, because of the content of their websites or links between such sites and other harassment or attacks against individuals. It is the approach of the police that if any person becomes aware of any threatening, racist or other hate material on a website, they should report it to their local police force. It is vital to report such material; otherwise the police cannot investigate it. I would encourage the police to continue their vital work of enforcing the law in this respect.

Looking to the future, the Association of Chief Police Officers is working with the Home Office and the police national high-tech crime unit and will review its position on that sort of crime.

Martin Salter: I am delighted that my hon. Friend has stated publicly that he would encourage the police to take action. Will he especially encourage West Yorkshire police to take action, given that Redwatch is based in Leeds and run by three individuals who are known to West Yorkshire police through a history of extreme political violence stretching back many years?

Mr. Coaker: I can confirm to my hon. Friend that we will be pleased to raise these issues with the police to see what their advice is on taking all these matters forward.

The Home Office and police are also undertaking separate but related work on animal rights extremists’ use of the internet. A consultative seminar with practitioner stakeholders is being planned, which will look at the current guidance to police forces and seek to agree procedures and identify any gaps. Issues raised by hon. Members in the course of this debate will also be taken on board at the seminar.

I am aware that the TUC did indeed write to the then Home Secretary in June 2005, following a meeting in March that year. May I apologise for the fact that the TUC did not receive a response to that letter? That was an unfortunate administrative oversight. I assure my hon. Friend that the TUC will now be updated on the matter as soon as possible.

I hope that I have been able to provide some assurance to hon. Members that the Government are committed to tackling hate crime and incitement to violence wherever it is found. In conjunction with our broader work on hate crime, we are planning to review and strengthen the police response to this type of activity, and to take the appropriate measures to ensure the safety of the public.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Eight o’clock.

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